Philipp Otto © iRights.Lab

26 March 2019

“The step into a truly data-driven society is big and takes a lot of persuasion.“

Global society is undergoing major changes and upheavals, and when we talk about developments in digitisation, there is no way around topics such as machine learning, Big Data and artificial intelligence. One person with excellent knowledge of the topic is Philipp Otto, founder and director of the iRights.Lab think tank and one of the lead­ing digitisation experts in Germany. In his daily work, the journalist deals with the interface between law, technology, society and politics in the context of digitisation and develops concepts and strategies for overcoming challenges in the digital world.

Mr. Otto, the iRights.Lab works with a variety of players - from public institu­tions and companies to science and politics. How are you positioned as a team and which issues and problems do you address?

We work in a non-partisan way at highly relevant political and social interfaces and, thanks to our many years of work, our approach and our political intuition, we have a high reputation both at home and abroad. An essential part of this is our ability to reflect, work on and develop almost all subject areas in the light of digitisation and digital policy. The topics include data governance, data policy, algorithms, artificial intelligence, neuronal thinking, IoT, historical-political education, European policy, regulation, information policy and a wide range of overarching strategy and policy advice. From the smallest to very large projects, everything is included.  

When we talk about developments in digitisation, there is of course no way around the topic of artificial intelligence. Have we already understood how much this will affect our lives in the coming decades?

Anyone who deals professionally with questions of machine learning, algorithms, Big Data and applications supported by artificial intelligence has a hunch, a feeling that this area is highly relevant for our future. At present, the degree of change for all of our lives is still completely open. There are technology-driven promises, a multitude of theoretical possibilities, and various examples of "the AI in our lives" used selec­tively. The decisive factor will be whether we drive this issue forward as a society, or whether we leave it at the development level of a few large companies with an affinity for technology. The step into a truly data-driven society is a big one and takes a lot of persuasion. What is essential here is that we move from easily formulated positions and demands to concrete implementation, in forms and small gradations that we cannot yet imagine. We are working on precisely these issues with many partners and intelligent people. Incidentally, these go far beyond questions and a singular view of AI.

With “Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence in Everyday Consumer Life" you have a new partner project which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection. What is it all about in detail and what do you want to achieve with the project?

This project is about the general sensitisation and participation of users in questions of AI and algorithms relevant to everyday life. We impart basic knowledge and illumi­nate a digitally shaped everyday life with pointed scenarios in which our main char­acter Anna is confronted with these topics, makes decisions and weighs them up morally and based on values. The everyday scenarios are played out in video, audio and text form in order to create as low a threshold and as varied an access as possi­ble to the highly complicated topics. We are doing this very well and the project is in great demand.

Digitisation can also be seen as competition, with all its advantages and disad­vantages. How do you see the handling of data also in relation to other coun­tries and their strict or loose regulation?

Digital applications and the resulting structural orientation of companies and entire industries are naturally also relevant to competition policy. This is not just to keep up and somehow swim along, but to become the driver of a development, a future. Competition for the best products, the best applications and the smartest solution to solve a problem can release new forces. But you have to create the conditions. We are at the very beginning when it comes to questions of what can be done with data and how, and what both governmental and entrepreneurial design can look like. What we need here, however, is a new naturalness in the promotion of these devel­opments. This requires a great deal of know-how and a great deal of courage. Germany is too slow here and has too little self-confidence.

Experience has shown that Berlin has many advantages, but what makes Berlin an AI hub for you? And how does Berlin perform compared to other centres like Silicon Valley, or even European metropolises like London or Paris?

Berlin can become a place which is not just a copy of any Silicon Valley, but a further development. The aim is to trigger an effect in which social questions, aspects of participation, value-bound regulations and products and a new form of strategic thinking can be established. The central question is: how can we really solve human problems globally and locally with the help of digitisation, how can we make life better in concrete terms? Such a development is much more than PR. If we want to achieve this, we need new permeable structures of companies, civil society and administra­tion; we need spaces and structures throughout the city that promote and facilitate such thinking. You can't grasp this per se with key figures and KPIs, it's rather an attitude of mind. If you want to become an AI hub, you have to want to become an AI hub. This also requires a new form of cooperative and strategic cooperation. The best must not be good enough, you have to go one step further. An enormous chal­lenge for a location. But doable.

If you could choose, what would be your ideal future scenario in a world domi­nated by artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence should help me personally and society to solve general prob­lems. People with non-ideal educational backgrounds should be individually enabled to reach for the stars, lonely people should have sparring partners with intelligent robots and applications that turn grief into a smile. Ecological resources and man­power should be used as intelligently as possible, and we are developing a social state which can react much better than today to the needs of the citizen through the increased use of AI. We are improving medicine and industrial processes and prod­ucts, and last but not least: we are creating the conditions for people to be able to concentrate more and more on interpersonal interaction and solidarity-based help in society. This is more or less how it will look one day if we make the right decisions now.

Mr Otto, thank you for the interview.